PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom has been found in three Rhode Island patients, the state Department of Health announced Tuesday.
The variant was identified Thursday in one patient in their 60s, one in their 50s, and one in their 20s, the agency said in a statement.
Dr. James McDonald, medical director for the state Department of Health, said the cases are still under investigation, but stressed confirmation of the virus in the state isn't surprising.
The variant has been identified in about 40 other states, including neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut, which have each reported dozens of cases.
The variant is considered more contagious, and may be even be more lethal, than the strain that has been predominant in Rhode Island.
Some medical experts have predicted the UK variant would become the predominant strain in the area by next month, but McDonald cautioned it was too soon to tell.
He said current treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 will work against the variant and encouraged residents to start using higher quality facemasks as an additional preventative measure.
McDonald also added that other virus variants from Brazil and South Africa have so far not been detected in Rhode Island.
VIRUS BY THE NUMBERS
Another 285 confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been detected in Rhode Island, and 10 more state residents have died of the disease, the state Department of Health reported Tuesday.
Of the new confirmed cases, 242 were people who tested positive for the first time Monday, and 43 were people who tested positive on previous days.
There have now been more than 122,000 confirmed cases and 2,344 deaths in the state.
The number of people in the state's hospitals with COVID-19 climbed to 197 as of Sunday, up from 189 the previous day.
The latest seven-day average positivity rate in Rhode Island is 2.38%. State health departments are calculating positivity rate differently across the country, but for Rhode Island the AP calculates the rate by dividing new cases by test encounters using data from The COVID Tracking Project.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Rhode Island has now fallen from about 600 on Feb. 1 to about 383 on Monday, according to The COVID tracking Project.
VACCINE ROLLOUT CRITICISM
Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee sharply criticized the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo for its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, and said when he takes over as governor, speeding up the vaccination process will be his top priority.
McKee will take over when Raimondo is confirmed as President Joe Biden's commerce secretary.
“Like most Rhode Islanders, I am not satisfied with the current administration’s progress on vaccine distribution, especially as we see our neighbors in Connecticut ranked among the top in the nation," the Democrat said in a statement Monday.
McKee plans to speak with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Harvard University experts this week to figure out ways to streamline vaccinations.
Rhode Island has consistently ranked low among states for the percentage of the population that had been vaccinated and about 80,000 doses sent to the state by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not been administered as of Monday morning.
“Speeding up vaccine distribution is my top priority," McKee said. “When I become governor, I want to have all the information to be able to hit the ground running on Day One."
McKee said his transition team has contacted all 39 cities and towns in the state about vaccination planning and will authorize emergency medical technicians to administer vaccines along with other medical professionals.
State Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Rhode Island's vaccination approach has differed from some states.
Rhode Island “took a very targeted, strategic approach” in the early stages of its vaccination campaign, prioritizing residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, followed by frontline health care workers.
“This targeted approach takes more time than mass vaccinating in public clinics,” Wendelken said. “For that reason, other states currently have higher administration rates than Rhode Island.”
He also pointed out that Rhode Island is opening two mass vaccination sites in Providence and Cranston later this week.
More than 103,000 people in the state have received a vaccine first dose, while almost 48,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health data released Monday.